Smuggler’s Cove and Yellow Banks (Santa Cruz Island)
- Location: Channel Islands National Park, off the Ventura coast. Island Packers is the main travel provider to the Channel Islands National Park. Visit their site here for schedules, fares and other information.
- Agency: Channel Islands National Park/National Park Service
- Distance: 10.8 miles
- Elevation gain: 2,100 feet
- Suggested time: 5.5 hours
- Difficulty rating: PG-13 (distance, elevation gain)
- Best season: Year-round (pending boat availability)
- USGS topo map: “Santa Cruz Island C” and “Santa Cruz Island D”
- Recommended gear: Dramamine (boat ride); sun hat; sunblock
- More information: Trip description (through Smuggler’s Cove) here; S.C.I. Yelp page here; National Park Service page here
- Rating: 8
The most popular day hike on Santa Cruz Island is Potato Harbor, but ambitious hikers might want to set their sights on Smuggler’s Cove, or farther still to the Yellow Banks Overlook. Although the schedules may vary, day trips typically allow five hours on the island; easily enough time to reach Smuggler’s Cove (a 7.4 mile round trip with 1,400 feet of total elevation gain) and, if a brisk pace is maintained, the Yellow Banks Overlook 1.7 miles farther.
From Scorpion Anchorage, follow the dirt road toward the information center, where you can look at interpretive exhibits and learn about Santa Cruz Island. Continuing, you pass the trail to Cavern Point branching off to the right and the visitor center, and soon you reach a 4-way intersection. Head left and begin a short but steep climb. For your efforts, you get a nice aerial view of the bay and Cavern Point.
The trail reaches a ridge where you can see Anacapa Island and the rugged coastline on the eastern shore of Santa Cruz. You make a sharp right turn and head through an open field, with the mountains distant.
At about 1.5 miles, you reach a split where the Montanos Trail heads off to the right. Stay left and continue a gradual ascent, enjoying more great views to the east. You reach the high point of the hike, approximately 700 feet above sea level, and then begin a steep descent (which, of course, you will have to climb on the return, and odds are the temperature will be hotter.)
At the bottom of the hill, you make a sharp S-curve, taking in your first views of the island’s south side. Another steep descent, through a grove of trees, brings you to Smuggler’s Cove. Here you can sit at a picnic table beneath a grove of eucalyptus trees and watch the tide. The crescent-shaped bay resembles Little Harbor on Catalina Island.
This makes a good turnaround point, but if you have time and energy you can continue on by following the dirt road north from Smuggler’s Cove through the trees, signed for Smuggler’s Ranch and Yellow Banks. You reach the old ranch house, built in 1889, with an interpretive plaque describing its history. Passing the house, the trail makes a sharp left turn and begins a steep ascent. On the way up, look for some caves carved into the rocks of the deep canyon beyond the ranch house.
The climb levels out and the trail passes through a big field, following a fence, before bending back to the south. The trail rises and falls before leveling out and reaching an ending in a clearing just beyond a solitary tree.
Here, you can stand and look at the ocean below. There are several informal paths that lead down to the ocean (300 feet below), but hikers who attempt these routes put themselves at risk. If you have visited Santa Cruz Island as a day trip, odds are you will not have time to explore much further, regardless of terrain and trail condition, so consider this vista your turnaround point.
Text and photography copyright 2012 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.